Eat, drink, be freaky: How Sac chefs succeed by going rogue

Forget S.F. and its Michelin stars

Members of the restaurant industry (left to right) Ramon Perez, Kaila Wide, Brock MacDonald, Tyler Bond and Paul Rodriguez in their natural habitat: chaos.

Members of the restaurant industry (left to right) Ramon Perez, Kaila Wide, Brock MacDonald, Tyler Bond and Paul Rodriguez in their natural habitat: chaos.

photo by darin smith

A paper plate soars across the room, hits the floor and falls to the ground. No one seems to notice.

Maybe that’s because it’s loud inside LowBrau. Really loud. There are also neon lights. A deejay blasting hip-hop. Beer. Beer chugging competitions. More beer. A photographer turned paparazzo treats every single person like an emerging celebrity, his camera flashing everywhere you look. It’s also a Monday night. Dinner hasn’t even started yet.

It’s the sixth edition of the Freaks of the Industry, a night for the restaurant industry by a few self-described “freak” chefs who love their people and love Sacramento.

Tickets always sell out fast, probably faster than any other local semiregular dinner series. This is Sacramento, straight up. No frills. No tablecloths. No pretension or stuffiness.

Even if Sacramento could get Michelin stars, would the freaks care? Nah. The freaks crave fun, dive bars and camaraderie.

“We’re all super-supportive,” says Tyler Bond, the series’ founder. “That makes it easy for these events to happen. I don’t think you could do these in San Francisco without ego and distrust and flakiness.”

And just because the Freaks’ eight-course dinners don’t carry a Michelin vibe, that doesn’t mean they don’t display Michelin-level talents. Dishes range from solid to exquisite, and somehow tickets don’t exceed $60. The freaks never make money—they want their cooks, servers, dishwashers and bartenders to afford to eat. And the Freaks roster is constantly evolving. More and more chefs want to get involved. Too many, really.

“That’s the point. People just wanna show up and hang out and cook together,” says fellow freak Brock MacDonald. “It doesn’t have to be Food & Wine. This is our Sacramento thing.”

Bond looks anxious. He’s freshly shaven, except for a thick, rectangular goatee. His tall socks are decorated with the American flag and his flat-billed baseball cap is emblazoned with the letter “F,” for Freaks of the Industry.

Freaks of the Industry regulars (left to right) Brock MacDonald, Ramon Perez, Tyler Bond and Paul Rodriguez always roll up in style. And with a pig’s head.

photo by darin smith

It’s approximately 5:15 p.m. on an early November night. A Freaks of the Industry dinner is about to begin, but half the seats are still empty. Outside, there’s a crowd of people who want them.

“Everyone’s looking at us like we’re not doing this right,” Bond says, eying the masses on the other side of LowBrau’s doors.

The empty seats belong to special guests: guests who didn’t have to buy tickets, guests who Bond and crew felt needed to eat. Farmers whose products are being showcased, for example. But they’re late, and the show must go on.

The first Freaks dinner went down two years ago at Sunh Fish. There were 70 people in attendance and the goal was simple: get restaurant people to sit down and eat for a change. Instant success.

About 30 chefs have tagged in at some point, including names like Billy Ngo (Kru), Michael Tuohy (Golden 1 Center), Scott Ostrander (Inn at Park Winters), Rachel Kelley (Brasserie Capitale) and Adam Schulze (The Waterboy). Throughout, Bond has been the only constant.

“To me, what Freaks is all about is a group of people doing what they love and a group of people supporting them,” Bond says. “You can’t do this in Oakland. You can’t do this in New York or Miami. Unless you know everybody. Maybe that’s it, maybe we just know everybody.”

By “we,” Bond means his right-hand man MacDonald. MacDonald remembers eating at the first-ever Freaks. He saw a flier with a bunch of chefs’ names on it and “BYOB” and thought, “Fuck. Yes.” He went, ate, got wasted, had a great time and signed on for round two. He’s been hooked ever since.

Knives, camera, action

The air inside LowBrau feels thick like butter with giddy anticipation. More and more people are ushered in and the place looks packed. Some pretty big food personalities are in the house: Hank Shaw, the James Beard Award-winning food blogger and author; Rodney Blackwell, the man behind Burger Junkies and the Sacramento Burger Battle; and even Guy Fieri. OK, OK, it was someone dressed up as Guy Fieri.

Bond dashes around the bar, cupping people’s heads with the palms of his hands. He gently squeezes with affection. MacDonald trails, quietly consulting with freaks and volunteers. He calls his style “constructively rude.” Like siblings, or a married couple, they finish each other’s sentences and read each other’s thoughts. It’s remarkable that the first time they met was less than two years ago, at the second Freaks of the Industry dinner.

“I’m a total silent dad,” MacDonald says. “He’s the mom.”

Ramon Perez

photosby carl costas

“I’m the mom,” Bond grins.

“Telling everyone it’s OK.”

“Hugging everyone that’s in the room.”

“And I’m like, ’Sorry, you can’t come in because you didn’t buy a ticket,’” MacDonald says. “And then I walk away and he’s like, ’Just go ahead, come on in.’”

Despite being well known in the industry, Bond isn’t exactly a household chef name in Sacramento. He doesn’t own his own restaurant. He’s never gotten a splashy photo spread in Sacramento Magazine. But he’s cooked in some of the best kitchens in town: Enotria, Ella Dining Room & Bar, The Kitchen and, now, Kru, where he operates as “head bitch.” Or, ahem, chef de cuisine. He’s kind of a hippie: not so into labels, addicted to the outdoors. Michael Passmore remembers Bond visiting Passmore Ranch and looking positively fidgety—he needed to go in the water, splash around with the fish. And so he did.

“He’s just a really connected guy— to nature, the ground, the water,” Passmore says. “Tyler would never take credit for pushing this—he’s very team oriented—but when I think of Freaks, I think of Tyler.”

Bond was raised all over Northern California, but mostly in Nevada County. He started cooking at age 17, now he’s 34. He did stints in Mexico and Alaska, and some cooking in Kenya and China. He moved from Oakland to Sacramento six years ago to take care of his dying grandmother, but there was an added pull.

“I’m not gonna say I dreamt about it because I’ll sound like too much of a hippie, but I knew I needed to be here,” Bond says.

MacDonald, meanwhile, has the word “salumist” on his business card for LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar. From San Luis Obispo, he moved to Sacramento when he was 17. His first restaurant gig was at age 13—now at age 30, he’s on restaurant number 29. He’s worked all over town—Tuli Bistro, Spataro, OneSpeed, Bella Bru—but most recently Restaurant Th13teen. There, he started teaching himself how to make sausages and charcuterie using cookbooks and YouTube videos.

“That’s another reason why I love doing Freaks, because I get to cook,” he says. “Sausage, I love it, but it’s the same thing every day.”

Brock MacDonald and Michael Passmore

photo by carl costas

The Digital Underground’s “Freaks of the Industry” blares over LowBrau’s speakers. How fitting. Then, commotion. Dressed in their black Freaks of the Industry T-shirts and hats, chefs emerge from the kitchen to greet a man wearing sunglasses in the pitch-black night. Everyone stands up, cheers, whips out their phones for photos. It’s Shock G! From Digital Underground! Like the “Freaks of the Industry” song! Now it feels like a Hollywood party: loud, flashy, disorienting.

Bond waves his hands in the air as if to say “Look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me,” although sometimes, he’ll just go ahead and say “Look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me.” MacDonald never does the announcements. He hates public speaking. In elementary school, he used to take failing grades instead of present in front of class.

“Find fucking seats right now,” Bond yells.

Platters of 18-month-old prosciutto and stone-ground mustard grace each table. MacDonald started curing the Soil Born Farms Guinea hog two years ago. Now, it’s melting on tongues.

Nothing ever goes quite as planned. Aimal Formoli was supposed to cook this evening but bailed at approximately 9:45 a.m. During the Freaks’ singular planning meeting, Formoli also didn’t show up and was, therefore, an appropriate target of jokes.

“Aimal will do amuse—minimal effort,” laughed Vinnie Lazzaretto, pasta guru at Hook & Ladder Manufacturing Co, at that meeting. “I’m just gonna do hella lasagna. It’s gonna be hella ugly. Hella lazz-agna.”

They ribbed on each other, on their restaurants, on the Freaks of the Industry. Nothing was off-limits. Localis Executive Chef Christopher Barnum brought his three young kids, but that didn’t stop the guys from dropping countless F-bombs and even joking about child abuse.

As soon as Lazzaretto high-fived everyone and left, Bond quipped: “Lazz-agna, who the fuck says that?”

Next up at the dinner, oysters. With his work at Kru, Bond obviously has a way with seafood. Funny enough, he doesn’t even like fish. He blames his parents’ poor cooking, which ruined fish forever.

But Bond does like fermenting things. These oysters are topped with turnips that have been fermented for six months, plus grilled broccoli and mignonette. They sound weird to some, impossibly trendy to others. Either way, they’re delicious and briny, with a subtle funk and pleasing bite.

Edward Martinez

photo by carl costas

Barnum grabs the microphone to detail his course: chorizo-braised pork belly with chili-lime salt, fire-roasted octopus and chipotle-butternut squash puree. The family-style platters are gorgeous, the curve of octopus legs matching the swoops of burnt orange sauce underneath. Then, each portion is scooped, plopped and splattered onto individual paper plates. Still, the pork belly is super-crispy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, and sure to convert anyone who complains that pork belly is too fatty. It’s a dish that could easily fit onto a Michelin-starred tasting menu, yet here it’s served with plastic silverware.

Lazz-agna is next, though Lazzeretto merely calls it “lasagna.” It’s also not “hella ugly,” though it’s not exactly sophisticated either. The portion is generous: a massive cube of handmade pasta sheets layered with ricotta and Del Rio squash. Tomato sauce, pumpkin seeds and a drizzle of dark green cilantro pesto top it off. It’s tepid—inexcusable normally—but here, the audience doesn’t care. Seconds get snatched up fast.

“Industry knows what’s up,” Passmore says. “Things aren’t going out how they would at their restaurants, but they’re going out and they’re good.”

The behavior of the chefs and guests alike would not be allowed at their restaurants. That’s why it’s fun.

Passmore hangs back, drinking a glass of wine and periodically collecting dirty plates from people who seem confused about why they still have dirty plates. His role? “Working, helping, supervising, making it happen,” he says. “It’s hard because the team is a bunch of captains. They need someone picking up the details.”

One of those captains is 20-year-old Elijah Flores Arizmendi. One by one, he stacks five massive hotel pans full of hot food onto a table. He’ll embark on plating 130 editions of his seven-component dish: 72-hour braised short rib, forbidden rice, romesco, fried sunchoke, pickled red onion, cilantro, flake salt. Clearly, he requires more hands—seven more pairs, to be exact. And somehow, it manages to look elegant on a paper plate— a palette of colors, with swaths of bright red, green, pink and black.

With a poke of a plastic fork, the perfect rectangle of short rib promptly falls apart. Wonderful.

It’s Arizmendi’s first Freaks event, and he brought a 10-person fan club: his mom, stepdad, cousins, friends. Some drove from Santa Rosa. He drove all the way from Las Vegas, where he’s sous chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago.

“My son is not a freak, OK?” his mom says, laughing before kissing Arizmendi’s forehead for a photo op. The family misses him, especially because he used to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

Despite mom’s words, Arizmendi fits the freak descriptor. He worked for MacDonald when he was 13 at Tuli Bistro, then he snagged a gig at Tyler Florence’s Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco. Legend goes, the executive chef at Spago recruited him immediately after eating a meal at Wayfare. At age 20. Legend also goes that he packed 140 plates for Freaks and broke 55 of them during his drive to Sacramento.

Rodney Blackwell and Shock G

photo by carl costas

Meanwhile, Bond continues to play host. At the bar, he wraps photographer Rachel Valley into a fat embrace. She’s photographed two Freaks dinners before—for no money, just like the chefs and everyone else involved—but tonight she’s just here for the party. How’d she enter the Freaks’ orbit in general? How’d she like shooting Freaks events last year?

“We were all soaked in Fernet so it’s hard to recall exactly,” she says, joking-not-joking.

And does it bother her that there’s rarely a woman in the kitchen? That the environment is so wild, the language so crude?

“It’s boys being boys,” she says. “You know the ride, so get on and strap in.”

Modern freak show

Shock G crosses the room with his entourage and automatically gets a standing ovation, a big fat thank you for his mere mortal presence. It seems like the water jug is constantly getting refilled—people are finally catching up on their hydration. They’re also dancing in their seats. “Boyz-n-the-Hood” comes on and LowBrau owner Michael Hargis jumps on top of the bench, bouncing to the beat and proving he knows all the words. With the flick of his wrist, he yells, “Get the fuck out!” with glee.

Hargis, who closed LowBrau for several hours for this event and worked a connection to get Shock G in the house, will later call the evening “incredible,” driving home the perfect combo of “food, fun, community, music.” This, coming from the guy who co-founded TBD Fest.

Back on the mic, Paul Rodriguez makes an announcement. Underneath a shiny green Mexican fighter mask, he explains his two courses: green mole and horchata-as-palate-cleanser.

The slow-burning mole blankets uber-tender braised lamb shoulder. Below, the Fish Face Poke Bar chef collected a whopping eight varieties of rice from the Central Valley. Leftover morsels are scooped up with bare hands, lunged at before volunteers dare take them away. The air feels primal, just in time for dessert.

Bond and MacDonald look like kids caught eating too much candy. They giggle and flee, or offer a quick excuse for a not-problem.

Controlled chaos,” Bond says, grinning ear to ear, before growing concerned. “How are you? Are you OK? Is everything OK?”

Tyler Bond and Shock G

photo by carl costas

Mom. Chill.

He’s the same with his chef-patriates, too. He grabs Rodriguez’s cheeks in both hands and brings them closer to his face. “You OK? You happy?” Rodriguez nods before receiving a quick hug and pat on the back. Go team.

The first dessert belongs to Ed Martinez, the former Fresno gang member turned pastry star. These days, he’s gearing up to open a hotly anticipated restaurant in San Francisco, which means he has no kitchen. Instead, Barnum let Martinez use Localis to prep that morning. But Localis lacked some equipment Martinez had planned to utilize, so he issues a formal apology to the rowdy crowd.

“I wish I had more time to work on the dish and make it better for you guys,” he says.

If he hadn’t said anything, no one would have wondered what was missing. Brandy-colored pears sit next to scoops of lime-tinted ice cream, lily pad-looking nasturtium leaves and orange blossoms. The pears were roasted in chartreuse—a commonly loved beverage of cooks—to match the chartreuse-flavored ice cream. There’s a soft lime-pear gelee, a subtle butter crumble. Multiple colors, textures, temperatures, yet it wasn’t enough. Martinez wanted to craft a chartreuse-pear sponge, for example, and a crisp coconut paper. Why care so much about a dinner in a city he no longer lives in?

“Honestly, I consider Sacramento my home,” he says. “The chance to work with chefs who are making things happen in Sacramento is worth it. I’ll give up my weekend, no problem.”

Martinez met Bond when they both worked at Enotria. He was actually scheduled to cook at the first-ever Freaks event, but he got whisked away by Tyler Florence’s team to work at El Paseo, a Michelin-approved fine dining establishment in Mill Valley. Then he worked at the Michelin two-star Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. No chance to participate in Freaks, until recently, and he couldn’t be more pleased about it.

The seventh course gets taken away, and there’s an obvious, awkward lull. It becomes obvious that quite a few folks have left early—the chaotic environment can’t impress everyone. The last course belongs to Ramon Perez, but where is he?

“He’s getting his ass kicked right now because he decided to do 16 components,” Bond says.


Michael Passmore

photo by carl costas

It takes Perez a whole hour to plate his masterpiece. That’s in part because of the elements. Instead of plating family-style like Martinez, Perez opts for elaborately decorating 130 white ceramic tiles. So, he spreads them out onto LowBrau’s outdoor patio tables for optimal space. Then, it starts raining.

MacDonald calls Perez “Diamond in the Rough” and “Rio Linda Royalty.” The latter because Perez’s Puur Chocolat is more or less headquartered in Rio Linda. Puur Chocolat produces incredible boxes of chocolates with exotic flavors inspired by Perez’s frequent travels: gochujang-miso, eucalyptus-lemon, banana-rum with cubeb pepper. As for “Diamond” and “Royalty,” it’s obvious with a glance of Perez’s lengthy resume.

He earned the executive pastry chef title of the David Myers’ Restaurant Group in Los Angeles, which included the Michelin-starred Sona. He won a International Pastry Competition; runner-up for a James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef. Or in MacDonald’s words: “He did chocolates for LeBron’s party.” As in, LeBron James.

Yet, here he is, rushing to dry off tiles and move them to the back of Block Butcher Bar. Right next to the bathroom line. Completely covering every possible surface in Block’s butcher box.

“It’s just something completely different from your every day,” Perez says. Indeed, his average day is spent alone, enrobing chocolates and shipping out caramels. “You’re getting eight crazy guys just geeking out about food.”

All hands are on deck to plate the grand finale: small mounds of 70 percent chocolate ganache; a pile of green crumbles made from dehydrated matcha cake; a single swirl of ketjap manis, a syrupy sweet soy sauce from Indonesia; a perfectly oval scoop of tobacco ice cream; three small chewy golden masses of candied eggplant. And more.

Each tile is an intricate work of perfectly duplicated art: an experiment in heights and textures and arrangement and colors and contrasts. The cold ice cream tastes like warmth. The eggplant starts out intensely sweet and finishes creamy, savory. Every bite gets you thinking.

Suddenly, there are no more bites. LowBrau starts to look like a normal Monday night again. Barnum and Rodriguez hide out in the kitchen, finally getting their turn to eat: leftover mole and rice scooped from giant pot to Tupperware to mouths. Martinez, now alone in the cold Block butcher box, stares at his own pear-chartreuse creation and takes a bite. After slowly nodding in approval, he chases it with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Though the night’s over for guests, it’s still in the upswing for the freaks. They’ll mosey over to a makeshift photo booth and take seemingly endless shots in seemingly endless poses, donning feather boas and hats and silly faces. They’ll get drunk. They’ll close down a dive bar, though some won’t remember. Then they’ll finish the night strong at MacDonald’s aunt’s house.

Days later, Bond and MacDonald declare it the best Freaks of the Industry night yet. Rave reviews spread on social media. But they dare not take credit. This was a team effort.

MacDonald calls out Getta Clue Store owner Justin Bilbao for making all the Freaks of the Industry swag; tattoo artist Mikey Dewitt for designing the evening’s logo; photographer Carl Costas for documenting the night; Michael Hargis, for allowing LowBrau to close; Shock G, for being there. They’re freaks of different industries.

And what’s in store for Freaks?

“It’s still an underground, illegitimate, wannabe business,” Bond says. “Eventually, it will turn into something.”

At this point, Freaks is too free-form, with too many people involved. Even though Bond is usually a control freak, he’s embracing the free-flying, no-stakes energy of what Freaks of the Industry has become.

“Throughout my life, there’s been so many times where I had a plan for how things were going to pan out. So many things don’t pan out,” he says. “For this, I’m really open. … It could just be nothing. It could also be life-changing.”

In the meantime, he and MacDonald will continue plotting the next event. Maybe something with kids and puppies. Bond, after all, loves kids. MacDonald’s own sons call him “Uncle Ty Ty,” and frequently insist on visiting him at Kru. They love Bond’s octopus, as much as MacDonald does not love footing the bill.

“As a kid I moved around a lot, so for me to be comfortable enough to call some place home means a lot to me,” Bond says. “I’m going to hang my hat here indefinitely as I see it now. Brock and I will probably be working together for forever.”